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Taking up a broader mission

A library, a garden, an art trove. And a president who wants to share the wealth.

May 25, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Steven S. KOBLIK wants to make a point. He strides into the president's conference room, across the hall from his office at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and stops in front of three framed photographs. Shot in the 1880s by Carleton E. Watkins, the images depict the San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica as pristine landscapes and downtown Los Angeles as a fledgling commercial center with Hispanic-flavored architecture.

"These photographs say: 'We are a young place and a Mexican-Spanish place.' And they are three of more than a million historical photographs at the Huntington," he says. "We have an extraordinary collection of not only written records but also fabulous photographs. It's the most important archive on the history of California that exists."

Koblik, 66, made his way back to Southern California seven years ago to take charge of the stately San Marino institution after serving for nine years as president of Reed College in Portland, Ore. And he wants the world to know that the Huntington is more than the home of a Gutenberg Bible, Thomas Gainsborough's "The Blue Boy" and Thomas Lawrence's "Pinkie" -- even as the extensively refurbished Huntington Art Gallery prepares to open its doors and show off its European art and furnishings.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 07, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Huntington: An article in the May 25 Calendar section on Steven S. Koblik, president of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, said an installation of American art would open in the Erburu Gallery in May 2010. It will open in May 2009.

"I'm a European historian by training, but I was fully aware of the importance of the Huntington to scholars of California and the West when I came here," says Koblik, a native who spent 24 years at the Claremont Colleges as a professor and administrator. "The history of California has been written at the Huntington since the early 1930s. Scholars understand this, but the public does not."

He may have to beat that drum a while longer, but he's had notable success in other projects. As successor to Robert Skotheim, who awakened the Huntington from a long slumber, shored up its tottering financial base and kick-started a slew of initiatives, Koblik has overseen a parade of additions to the 206-acre campus -- the Botanical Center, the Munger Research Center, the Lois and Robert F. Erburu Gallery and the Chinese garden, known as the Garden of Flowing Fragrance. He also has helped the Huntington define itself while expanding its collections, community outreach and collegial collaborations.

"He hasn't missed a beat," says Ruth B. Shannon, a long-time Huntington overseer. "He is wearing us all out, he's so full of energy."

Some of that activity shows up in numbers. Multimillion-dollar gifts from foundations and individuals have launched major projects, the endowment has climbed from $146 million to $265 million and membership has grown from 19,000 to 28,000.

On Koblik's watch, the Huntington also has forged working relationships with public schools and universities, including the formation of two institutes -- one devoted to modern history, the other to California and the West -- in cooperation with USC.

Kevin Starr, a former California state librarian who teaches at USC, regards the Huntington as "one of the great libraries on the planet" and one that can play an important role in the surrounding region. Koblik has guided "a wonderful evolution of the Huntington in broader vistas" as well as "an intensification of its scholarship," he says, and its venture with USC is a boon to the university.

USC President Steven B. Sample describes the collaboration as "a really good fit," partly because the university puts the bulk of its library resources into providing high-speed access to major libraries around the world rather than buying books. "The Huntington has material, much of which is priceless," he says. "We have faculty. Why should we spend money to duplicate what the other side has? That has been the most important growth in our professional relationship."

At the Huntington, Koblik's colleagues describe him as a people person with a big smile and an ear for ideas and contrary opinions. With a jampacked calendar and a residence on the grounds -- where he lives with his wife, Kerstein, an urban planner -- he's the face of the institution. But he is never happier than when he's poking around in the bowels of the Munger Research Center, where tens of thousands of books and manuscripts reside on metal shelves in a compact storage system.

"This is the fun part," he says, pointing out boxes of drawings by Paul Conrad, The Times' longtime cartoonist; the corporate records of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., founded in 1848 to carry mail from the isthmus of Panama to California; and a collection of cookbooks going back to the 12th century. "How can you not love this? You'd have to be brain-dead."

A key acquisition

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